February 20, 2015

House lawmakers discuss transportation funding, reforms at Lobby Lunch

By: Bobbi Cussins   Comments: 0
Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, and Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, discuss transportation issues at the Feb. 19, 2015, AWB Lobby Lunch. (Photos by Brian Mittge/AWB)
Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, the lead on the House Transportation Committee, began his remarks at this week's Lobby Lunch by announcing that he only agreed to speak if he didn't have to talk about transportation.

Which, as Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, vice chair of the House Transportation Committee, reminded the crowd, was Orcutt's well-known sense of humor on display.

But, the issue of transportation funding could not be more serious for AWB members, state businesses and the public who are increasingly frustrated with traffic congestion, roadways and bridges that need to be addressed.

Leaders in the state Senate put forward a $15 billion transportation revenue package that received a public hearing on Feb. 18. The next day, it moved out of committee to await a vote in the Senate. Once the package has passed in the Senate, the debate will shift to the House where many believe the hurdles will be higher to get and transportation funding plan approved.

Fey said of the Senate's proposal that he is pleased to see it out so early in the session and that a lot of items are things everyone can agree to.

Orcutt said weight fee increases on freight vehicles and cars could create some concern among the public, And, he said, passage of the plan may require the project list to be written into the law, which is an ironclad way of ensuring projects on the list at the time the revenue package is passed are not removed later.

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, at the Feb. 19, 2015, AWB Lobby Lunch.
"In past packages, the list of projects was not outlined in statute and some of the projects got bumped off the list," Orcutt explained.

Lawmakers who voted for the last gas tax package based on projects in their districts that were removed later could be skeptical of any transportation funding package they are asked to support now, he said.

Fey said he would support putting the project list into the transportation funding bill.

"People want to know that projects promised will actually be completed," Fey said.

With such close numbers between Republicans (47) and Democrats (51) in the House, a strong bipartisan agreement will be necessary. While only 50 votes are needed to pass a transportation funding bill, to pass the bonding bill 59 votes are needed, Orcutt explained.

"It's going to take a lot of work from all four caucuses in order for there to be a package that can garner enough votes. A huge part of what it's going to take to get a transportation package through is the reforms that have been proposed, and not just those proposed in the Senate but also in the House," Orcutt said.

One key reform, according to Orcutt, is for the state to stop charging sales tax on transportation projects, which is then put into the state general fund to pay for programs and services unrelated to roads. This one reform could leave as much as $1 billion for road projects in the 18th Amendment-protected transportation fund.

Fey said he has concerns about the sales tax reform because it would leave a hole in the state budget and impact education funding required under the state Supreme Court's McCleary ruling.

Regarding sticking points, Fey said some of them are his proposals that are in the Senate's package.

Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, at the Feb. 19, 2015, AWB Lobby Lunch.
Fey is the sponsor of the Sound Transit 3 (ST3) package that is a $15 billion tax ask from the transit agency to expand light rail and transit further south. The taxes in the plan would be a accumulation of local option and property tax increases.

The Senate's plan only includes two-thirds of the funding Fey is requesting on behalf of the agency. This could be a sticking point for many Democrats in the House who want the full funding.

However, Fey thanked his Senate counterparts for negotiating so that some of the funding for ST3 was included.

"The reform bills are going to be a big part of my caucus' comfort level to where members can go back to their districts and say 'we're asking you for another eleven-and-a-half cents, but here's what we have for you and here are the savings,'" Orcutt told the crowd.

Some of the proposed reforms by Republicans, Fey said, are going to be a challenge to get through the Democratic majority in the House.

"The labor reforms are going to be challenging and some Democrats will question if we would be giving up a lot of environmental protections to get this package done," Fey said.

He was referring to what is being called by House and Senate Democrats "the poison bill" in the bill.

One of the provisions in the transportation funding package would direct money to be removed from transit funding should the governor and Department of Ecology move forward with the Low Carbon Fuel Standard that would increase the cost of fuel and goods.

Despite roadblocks in the fund and reforms package, Fey said Pierce County is looking closely at the plan because there are a lot of important projects, including finishing Highway 167, in the Senate proposal that would benefit the county.

"I look out every morning to the Port of Tacoma. I see the backups and the necessity to be competitive and to have our ports thrive to get our products out to the world. I know how important that is. So, I am going to working with my members to see if we can find a way to say 'yes' to the package," Fey said.

The Legislature's reluctance to pass a package, Orcutt said, is not necessarily based on their basic philosophy; its because there is reluctance on the part of the public because of the 520 Bridge, Bertha and ferries.

Orcutt said that all the troubled projects are in the Puget Sound region. And, he said, when tax packages are put out to a vote of the public, it is generally the Puget Sound region that carries them to pass.

However, Orcutt pointed out, a transit tax package just failed in King County, which tells him there will be an uphill battle to get a tax plan for roads passed even in the region of the state that tends to support new and higher taxes.

He believes that anything the Legislature passes regarding transportation funding and revenue will go out to a vote of the people that may not support the tax package.

"It's hard to get legislators over the hurdle for voting for something until the people haven't gotten over the hurdle to support it," Orcutt said.

Fey told the group of the disagreements on the funding plan that he is the "eternal optimist" because there are a lot of things both parties can agree on.